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Accessibility, Authenticity and Anything but Anarchy

November 23, 2011

Lately, I’ve been working on a quick turnaround project for a federal agency to develop a course on social media. The intended audience includes state, local, tribal and territorial officials that need to make good decisions quickly to maintain community confidence and avoid or mitigate crises. As I’ve interviewed local experts, I’ve learned that many public officials see social media as a major threat rather than a great opportunity.

As I’ve reflected on these concerns, I’ve come to the conclusion that officials have good cause for concern. Likewise, the public has even better cause to keep pressing its case for more and better engagement by public officials through social media.

Despite the persistent decline of public trust and confidence, or perhaps because of it, the public has increasingly come to expect access. Access to government information. Access to government services. And access to government officials.

In an era when the Supreme Court of the United States equates campaign contributions with free speech and concludes that corporations have the same rights as individuals, its easy to see why people feel so strongly that access should not be restricted to the few who can afford it.

Traditionally, the legitimacy of government officials’ actions have rested on three pillars:

  • Authority
  • Accuracy
  • Accountability

Authority typically takes the form of legal mandates and budgets. Accuracy reflects the presumed rightness of actions judged according to their conformity with the strict limits of statutory authorizations and appropriation limits. Accountability is something largely exercised by political and judicial authorities over executive officials, and too often reflects popular will rather than the public weal.

The ability of social media to democratize civil discourse provokes anxiety among  public officials who fear that accountability to everybody means accountability to anybody. (Oddly enough, no one has expressed a fear that this could lead to accountability to nobody, which I still reckon is one of the possibilites.) These fears may be justified. Complaints that could once be dismissed as narrow interest group politics are no longer restricted to the usual suspects with enough time or money to attend public meetings.

Cops can now expect every action they conduct in public to be recorded by somebody and shared with everybody in minutes. Transportation officials can expect on-the-spot traffic reports from anybody annoyed by delays clearing snow. Building code officials can expect complaints about surly or incompetent inspectors to be communicated to other contractors instantly. Transit operators can expect riders to report rude operators and late-running trains. And health officials can hear about the fly in somebody’s soup while the diner’s still seated at the table and telling the server about it.

With few exceptions, these observations and antipathies are nothing new. What’s new and different is the ability to attract an audience. And more often than not this audience extends well beyond the few people a message might be aimed at influencing.

So far, fears that such open access would lead to something approaching anarchy have proven anything but realistic. To be sure, social media has proven itself a powerful organizing force among protestors aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement. But it has also proven equally adept at affording the movement’s antagonists and opponents a platform too. (Isn’t this what the framers expected?)

As the flow of information accompanying the clearance of Occupy encampments has illustrated, efforts to spread disinformation have been widespread. But the truth has come through clearly enough to anybody willing to pay attention and apply a healthy dose of skepticism to their analysis of who’s saying what.

If those outside government see in social media the promise of access, and with that the democratization of accountability, then public officials should see in social media the promise of awareness that can expand the legitimacy of their authority by safeguarding the accuracy of their actions.

Time and again, interviews I’ve conducted with local officials have demonstrated that the real value of social media to those who have already adopted it comes from acquiring a broader and deeper understanding of what’s going on in their communities. The voices of real people speaking in real-time may not be any louder than those of lobbyists and the other monied interests who have typically monopolized the public discourse. But they do have an unmistakable authenticity that resonates with any official who still believes it’s their job to serve the public interest.

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